The In-between: The View from the Shore

ericb007  via iStock

ericb007 via iStock

I have always felt that I don’t belong to a community, not really anyway. In large part, I attribute this lack of belonging to the unnerving in-betweenness of being a first generation Nigerian-American (the child of two Nigerian immigrants), which has imparted unto me an insatiable urge to adapt to my surroundings, yet at the same time has also dictated that my experiences remain distinct, particularly as they relate to class, gender, sexuality, and race.

When I think of the word “community,” I think of people drinking lemonade as they plant flowers at the fringes of pristine lawns, and handing one another pamphlets or flyers promoting an event. In my mind, this image of community features people who are just as much connected to each other by the dirt under their finger nails as they are by a common ethnicity and set of shared personal values. They seem like they belong with one another, like they have found their tribe. Over the years, I have often wondered when I would find my tribe, when I would be invited to plant flowers alongside people with whom I share key identifiers, or at least when I too would feel ready to throw my own flower-planting, flyer-filled party.

Bumming around a neglected beach town facing the Atlantic Ocean is not exactly what comes to mind for most people when envisioning growing up in New York City, and yet, that was my reality. The part of Far Rockaway I am from was made up of mostly working- and middle-class African American and Caribbean families during my childhood, although there were many Hispanic families living there as well. This specific blend of socioeconomic classes and ethnic backgrounds was common in many neighborhoods across New York City back then, even though the beach (being the only appeal to the town) was not. However, my sisters and I still stuck out in our community because we were poor and first generation Nigerian-Americans, the latter of which was a far less visible experience in 1990s America than it is today. Meanwhile, we were simultaneously made to feel as though we didn’t belong in Nigerian communities either, ironically because we were deemed by them to be far too American.

Growing up in a Black (African American and Caribbean) neighborhood in Queens, I also stood out because a “cool” appearance was an essential part of belonging there, and I didn’t have the right clothes or swag. Because we were poor and my parents were immigrants, most of their concerns were centered on survival and providing for our basic needs, rather than on fashion trends. Thus, when they bought me sneakers, they were durable shoes from Payless. When they bought me clothes, they were from Conway and mainly designed to keep me warm. These choices meant that returning to school in September was always embarrassing, and so I dreaded it (much like I did most days at school) because what you wore mattered. When I would make that long walk down the halls in knock-off L.A. Lights without my shoes lighting up, laughter seemed to seep from the ground itself.

To make matters worse, whenever my parents brought me into Nigerian spaces, the inverse would happen. I was—and still am—shamed for not knowing how to speak Yoruba (as if I chose not to learn), and told that I have had it easy living here by envious aunties who’d had it rough(er) back home. I also received unsolicited advice from uncles on how to make sure African American culture never negatively influenced me, and was encouraged to avoid caring about looking “cool” at all costs, because this mindset was sure to lead me down a path toward crime, drugs or prison. My American accent, which was mostly untouched by my parents’ Nigerian ones, made people in these spaces quickly lose interest in whatever I had to say, and occasionally even brought about nasty stares. All of my pop culture references surrounded African American artists or shows, and I knew none of the artists or other cultural elements that my Nigerian peers referenced.

On top of these tensions surrounding my race and ethnicity, I was also often ridiculed by kids and adults on every side for how I presented my gender. According to them, I talked and acted “like a girl,” which was abhorrent. The older I got, the harder it became, because what others thought grew increasingly important to me, and no matter how much I tried to conform to their expectations, it never seemed to be enough. Occasionally, I would try to insert myself into male-dominated spaces, but each time I was met with resistance. I was told that I walked funny, had a high-pitched voice and exhibited “too much energy,” which combined with my cheap clothes made other boys stay far away from me for fear of looking uncool or becoming “infected” with gayness, like I was.

In response, I directed this same homophobic attitude toward a boy whom my peers also called gay when he tried to befriend me. One day, after I was on the receiving end of a particularly bad taunting incident from a group of popular boys, he sat beside me at lunch, but before he could get a word out I told him I didn’t want to be his friend—loudly—so that people nearby could hear. No matter how hard he cried or begged, I refused to tell him why.

Looking back on this incident, I realize that I had internalized what was deemed an acceptable way to perform my gender as well as the homophobic ideas that were commonplace in my neighborhood, the Nigerian community and my family. Sadly, it was many years before I began to challenge those ideas and unpack the hurt I was inflicting onto myself and others. Soon after I began middle school, however, I learned the word “bisexual” (I’d had crushes on boys and girls), and again found myself at another damned intersection outside the neat confines of a binary, which felt like I was once again out of reach of yet another community.

Some of this sounds terribly mundane to me now, but as an adult I have often found that the message “you don’t belong” (which is something I would sense whenever I’d attempt to befriend other boys), continues to present itself in the coding—a specific set of cultural norms—of every room I walk into. These days, I often find myself in mostly White spaces, or spaces that center Whiteness as the standard. There, it is less about wearing the right sneakers (though appearance is still a significant factor), and more about pronunciation and the ability to fit in. There, questions like “where are you from,” “what do you do,” and “where did you go to college” can quickly go from being harmless inquiries that help break the ice, to strategic tools used to identify someone’s class, income range, and ultimately, level of belonging. I find that differing from the accepted norm results, yet again, in “you can’t sit with us” responses, which are words that have haunted me ever since I uttered them to one of the few boys who was willing to be my friend back in middle school.

I look at these experiences and am grateful to not have been pulled apart by them. I have experienced accepted norms of many spaces trying to impede on me, demanding that I tone down certain aspects of my being and hone in on the acceptable ones. However, I have resolved to rebel against these pressures, which perhaps is also the answer, both for other immigrant children and for anyone else who might feel similar urges to conform.

Hope is my form of rebellion at the moment—it endures even through all of this, and reminds me that the world might not be doomed after all. Nowadays, more men have begun to talk seriously about gender and to work on bringing masculinity and femininity into balance. Films like Black Panther(2018) have also helped make being African cool, and pushes for racial equality have grown increasingly widespread, as have legislative changes designed to protect LGBTI folks worldwide. Growing numbers of well-known Black bisexual men have also grown more visible, which has helped create additional space for the rest of us by counteracting harmful stereotypes. I have changed, and the world around me has changed. And I find these changes heartening.

Resisting the urge to code-switch whenever I can is another form of rebellion that I have taken up, and sorting through the various faculties of my identity is perhaps the most meaningful yet. Thankfully, I’ve broadened my understanding of the word “community” and accepted that the ones I belong to are descriptors—points of view—that no one can take away from me or diminish. They are views that I cannot rid myself of (not totally anyway) even if I wanted to. They are my default. There is a certain calm that has come with knowing that though I may never plant flowers or share flyers with people who share every aspect of my identity, I am fine. I belong, despite the fact that I may always feel the urge to alter myself depending on what community I’m engaging in. I exist in a male body, and yet I am also feminine. I am Nigerian-American. I am bisexual. I may take up these various identities at various times and to varying degrees, but I still occupy them. These things contribute to the way I experience the world, but I am an observer first and foremost, ever looking out at the Atlantic from the shore.